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Virginia Association of Railway Patrons

Modern Transportation for the Virginias

2012 Annual Meeting Highlights

VARP held its annual meeting on March 3 at the Community Building in Williamsburg. About 33 people attended, plus the speakers and a Hampton Roads Transit camera man who was recording the event.

John Edwards, Norfolk Southern’s General Director of Passenger Policy, spoke about Norfolk Southern’s relationship with rail passenger operators. “In Virginia,” he said, “you are blessed with a state organization [the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation] that has a very good conversation … with the host railroads.” He also acknowledged that VARP as an association of rail patrons is very important: the group wants healthy passenger and freight operations and recognizes that passenger trains running on host freight railroads represent a marriage of the two kinds of train operations.

He mentioned some projects that Norfolk Southern is participating in that will help passenger trains serving the Virginias:

  • A flyover at the junction in Englewood, IL, where Metra commuter trains have priority; the Capitol Limited, serving West Virginia, passes through Englewood
  • North Carolina Railroad upgrades—Norfolk Southern is a tenant of North Carolina Railroad, and the Raleigh-Charlotte line is part of the designated high-speed rail corridor that will also serve Virginia; the Carolinian, serving Virginia, uses this line
  • The Indiana Gateway to Chicago on Norfolk Southern’s line across northern Indiana; the Capitol Limited also uses this line
  • The Petersburg-Norfolk line, on which state-sponsored Amtrak service is scheduled to begin this year

Edwards said he is responsible for numerous operations in which Norfolk Southern hosts passenger trains. When rail passenger operators bring him a proposal to operate passenger trains on Norfolk Southern tracks, the company has four principles for cooperation and agreements:

  1. Norfolk Southern must received fair market value for the use of its tracks
  2. The passenger operations must be transparent to freight traffic—that is, the freight trains must not see a negative impact from passenger trains on the same line
  3. Dynamics must be considered: how the rail environment is affected by the presence of passenger trains—the requirement for positive train control, for example, and retaining flexibility for changes in the freight market
  4. Liability: passenger operations must not add to Norfolk Southern’s liability

When a new passenger operation is considered, he said, all aspects of Norfolk Southern’s business are considered: engineering, law, real estate, taxes, etc. In the few years he has filled the passenger policy position, Norfolk Southern’s attitude toward passenger trains has changed, he said. The company will accept passenger trains on a line when it can be done right.

What about adding passenger service to currently unused lines? Norfolk Southern preserves low-density lines when they have freight potential, he said, noting that some trackage in the Shenandoah Valley has had service discontinued, but Norfolk Southern has not abandoned the track.

Thelma Drake said that the Commonwealth of Virginia needs a constitutional amendment to allow tax law changes that would encourage railroads to preserve unused lines and said she hopes her department will hear from any railroad considering a line abandonment before a decision is made.

Thelma Drake, Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, also spoke to her department’s relationship with the freight railroads: We are a thorn in the side of the railroads, she said, yet “they bend over backwards to help us.” For example, Norfolk Southern is charging the state no access fees for the first three years of operating the Lynchburg train (started in 2010), and railroads in Virginia have overpaid their matching share of Rail Enhancement Funds, contributing 44% rather than the required 30%. CSX paid part of the state’s match of federal funds for environmental impact analysis of high-speed upgrades to the Richmond-Washington line.

The Lynchburg train, she said, has enjoyed triple the ridership predicted by Amtrak, so it has not required any state operating subsidy yet. The commonwealth is looking ahead to possible rail service to Roanoke, currently served by a bus that connects to the Lynchburg train. Drake wants the bus service added to Amtrak’s reservation system so that the state can see just how many people are riding the train via the bus from Roanoke. The state is also assisting Norfolk Southern with track improvements in the Roanoke area that would help accommodate extension of the Lynchburg train to Roanoke.

Amtrak projects that the Norfolk service will also run in the black. The predawn departure time from Norfolk will accommodate military passengers she said, while acknowledging that a possible 4:15 a.m. departure on weekends might have few military or other passengers. The schedule for weekends still has to be worked out, she said.

In the future, Virginia expects to sponsor three round trips between Norfolk and the Northeast Corridor, and federal high-speed rail funds would pay for resurrection of a Virginian Railway line from Norfolk to Suffolk and upgrading it to 110 mph. Until them, the new train will use the existing Norfolk Southern tracks between those points.

However, the funding for future intercity rail service in Virginia is uncertain, said Drake. Until a federal formula is decided, establishing states’ share of responsibility for funding regional services, Virginia can’t plan for other projects (Charlottesville-Richmond service has been discussed but not planned, she said in answer to a question). Other problems are delaying progress too: the federal government approved a “high speed” grant to design 11 miles of 70 mph third track between Powell’s Creek and Aquia Creek on the Washington-Richmond line, but the funds have yet to be obligated by the federal government, and period in which the funds must be spent will expire soon.

In answer to other questions, Drake said that her department works extensively with all the transit agencies in Virginia but does not fund operations the way it does for a few intercity trains, which are considered a statewide rather than local service. She said that a dedicated bus service between downtown Richmond and the Staples Mill Road Amtrak station in Henrico County would make sense, but it would be up to Greater Richmond Transit to provide it, or Amtrak could establish a connecting bus—something she doesn’t think is likely. Extension of the Tide light rail system from Norfolk to Virginia Beach should have been part of the project from the beginning, she said, but right now the Federal Transit Administration is asking that any applications for the extension be put on hold until one year’s worth of ridership data is available; in the six months since the Tide started running, she said, it carried almost double the number of projected riders.

Randy Wright, President of the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance, said that it would take 12 years from the time a decision is made to extend the Tide to Virginia Beach until trains start running. Norfolk moved fast because its Environmental Impact Statement could have expired. He also said that the Virginia Beach extension will not be built as cheaply as the initial 7-mile Tide line, which had the lowest cost per mile of any U.S. light rail system built in this century, because environmental studies take as much as eight years, and by then the construction costs will have gone up. However, he said the eight years after the system opens will bring rewards: typically private transit-oriented development around the new stations equals seven times the amount spent on building light rail. More light rail is in the future for the Hampton Roads area, he said: expansion of the Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth will include a provision for light rail, as will any future third crossing of Hampton Roads between Norfolk and the Peninsula.

The mindset is changing locally and nationally in favor of public transportation, said Wright, and he emphasized the importance of groups such as VARP and the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance and the work of individuals. Nobody brings change alone, he said, but there are things that don’t happen because of what one person didn’t do.

Elections. Jim Bayley, Allan Carpenter, Jim Churchill, Steve Dunham, Bill Forster, Herbert Richwine, Dick Peacock, and Michael Testerman were unanimously reelected to the board of directors. Steve Dunham was unanimously reelected chairman of the board. Testerman, Churchill, Peacock, Richwine, and Carpenter agreed to continue serving in their posts as, respectively, president, executive vice president, secretary, treasurer, and assistant treasurer.